The last new chapter of Hydro Hackers that I wrote was about Gear. It is the last thing I designed for the game. After this, I will be just adding text and mechanics to all the existing chapters of the game. Gear was a tough thing for me to wrap my head around. I knew I wanted gear in the game, but I was not hot on the idea about a game driven by gear. So I kept putting off the design and just putting some token, undefined items on the playbooks. But as the manuscript neared completion, I knew it was time to address gear.
As mentioned previously, Hydro Hackers roots came from work I did on a Fate cyberpunk toolkit. Cyberpunk games are known for their gear—be it cybernetics, weapons, vehicles, drones, etc. Hell, most cyberpunk games of yore have whole books dedicated to this subject. Historically, there is an expectation that Cyberpunk games have gear.
But I wanted something different for Hydro Hackers. Early on it had more of a cyberpunk feel, but over time I kept trimming away those elements and drifted the game from cyber to hydro. With that, I eliminated cybernetic implants. I also did not want the game to rely heavily on armed conflict, because the players are supposed to be struggling against a superior and nearly-intractable enemy. So, having hundreds of weapons options would also run counter to the spirit of the game. Lastly, I did not want to write lists of gear. I just didn’t.
So what I wanted was to have a set of rules for gear where I could make some examples and then just let players and GMs come up with their own ideas. This would eliminate me from writing tons of gear lists, and it would let the group put their own emphasis on gear.
Powered by the Apocalypse games often use Tags, words that contain narrative impact. The tags are then applied to gear or other things as a narrative shorthand to tell you something about the item in question. So if a gun has the tag Noisy, then when it is fired, people nearby are going to hear it.
I very much wanted the gear system in H2O to be tag-based. I wanted there to be a lexicon of tags that could be combined to describe a piece of equipment. This idea is not new, you see it in all sorts of PbtA games. In fact, as I was doing my early designs, I dug into some of my favorite PbtA games—Dungeon World, The Sprawl, and Headspace—so that I could see their lexicon.
Eventually, I began to construct my own lexicon. Some of it was borrowed or inspired by the tags in those games above, and some were my own. I created a general lexicon that could be used for any item. Then, as I designed different types of gear, I began to add words to the lexicon. Now there are tags that are specific for weapons, some more for drones, and some for vehicles.
Three Types of Gear for Hydro Hackers
In talking to Chris Sniezak, one of my partners at Encoded Designs and my co-host on Misdirected Mark, we got into a discussion of what I was thinking that gear should be in the game, mechanically. I had not fully thought it through, but after some discussion, he shared with me some thoughts and I really liked his approach. It worked well with where I was going with the lexicon of tags, but it also gave me some actual design goals.
In essence, we defined three types of possible uses for gear:
As Narrative Positioning
This type of gear allows a player to do something in the game that they could not normally do without it. For instance, if you want to get across town quickly, then having a car would allow you to do that. If you want to attack someone from a distance, you will need a gun. The importance of the gear is to allow you to do something in the narrative, but you will still use the normal Basic Moves and the moves on your Playbook.
As Bonuses to Moves
This type of gear grants a bonus to the character when they use it. For instance, you may have some Breaking & Entering gear that grants a +1 to moves when you are breaking and entering into a location.
As Moves Themselves
This type of gear is its own move. When you use the gear it triggers the move, and the resolution of the move determines how the gear performed.
The Final Design
Chris’ thought was that gear should be for Narrative Positioning. I liked that idea, tut I wanted to leave open the possibility of the other two, although as much more the exception to the rule. This was for a few reasons. The first was that it kept gear more focused on the narrative of the game and away from mechanics, so there would not be the urge to “kit out” for a mission.
Second, bonuses in PbtA games are very attractive. Getting a +1 can be all you need to improve the category of your outcome, pushing a -6 into a 7-9. If you have a lot of gear granting bonuses, there is a pull on the players to keep getting more and more of this gear.
Lastly, having lots of gear with their own moves makes designing gear cumbersome. Designing moves is not trivial, and if you needed a move every time a piece of gear was being thought of, it would create a lot of drag on prep and play.
As a result, the vast majority of the gear is for Narrative Positioning. There are 1-2 pieces of gear that grant bonuses, and another 1-2 that have their own moves.
Here are three examples from the draft of the Gear chapter:
As Narrative Positioning
The RobotCop Pistol (Printed, 2-Conditions, Near, Loud, Reload, Concealable, Illegal) Cost: Marks
This is a replica of a pistol from a famous movie about a Cyborg Law Enforcement Officer. The plans can be downloaded and printed on any home printer.
As Bonuses to Moves
B&E Gear (5-Uses, Illegal) Cost 2 AC
This is a collection of mechanical and electronic door bypasses, picks, crowbars, etc. It has one purpose—to break into locations.
Use: Spend one Use to gain a +1 to any Roll which involves Breaking & Entering.
As Moves Themselves
Authority Issued Water Suit (Conspicuous, Loud, 5-Uses) Cost: NA
All US Citizens are issued a free Water Suit, as well as any necessary replacements. This suit is designed to reclaim any water from sweat and urine to make drinkable water. Most people do not put these on unless they have run out of Water Rations. When worn, the following move is available:
When you wear your suit and Sweat, mark a Use. When you want to reclaim water, Roll+Uses.
On a 10+: You can reclaim half (round up) of the Uses as Water.
On a 7-9: You can reclaim 1 Water.
On a 6- : You fail to reclaim any water from the suit.
With most of the gear used as Narrative Positioning, it makes creating gear fast and easy—but leaving the door open for bonuses and moves means that there is flexibility when trying to create something more complex. Overall, I like how the draft of the gear chapter has gone. It still needs development and playtesting, but my hope is those will focus more on tuning the lexicon and less on making any significant changes to how gear works in the game.